We amateurs commonly speak of “taking a picture.” Those who practice photography more seriously used to grumble, “I don’t take pictures— I make them.” Point taken, but circa 1980, artists like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine started talking about, and doing, what they called “appropriation.” Influenced by the conceptual art of the preceding decade, and haunted by the sense that pictures make us more than we do them, they tried out a second-order photography, making pictures by, literally, taking them from consciously artistic sources (Levine’s works “after” Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange) or purely commercial ones (Prince’s Marlboro Men). Theirs were images of images, photographs in quotation marks. Meanwhile, as if to prove the priority of images over real life, Cindy Sherman was populating her “Untitled Film Stills” with images of herself as the stereotypical heroines of imaginary B-movies. For all three artists, the idea was not to use photography to picture the world but rather to picture photography: to envision and perhaps undermine the existence and operations of a medium that, after more than a century, was now taken for granted.
Photographic appropriation—rephotography—is still very much with us… and there’s so much more to rephotograph! Found digital images don’t even need to be rephotographed to be reused; just click “Save As…” But how is an artist to navigate this flux of imagery? In their very titles, two current exhibitions at New York City museums emphasize two possible approaches. At the Museum of Modern Art, “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015” (on view through March 20) seems to put the focus on how images have become a kind of total environment in which we find ourselves immersed. The nearly concurrent exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, “Photo-Poetics: An Anthology” (on view through March 23)—its title calling attention to the idea of poiesis, Greek for “making”—has a dual emphasis: that the artist’s task has to do with making something of what one gathers from the ocean of images, and that whatever is so made will have the essentially discursive, perhaps even erudite character we associate with poetry and poetics.
The MoMA show is the latest in its “New Photography” exhibition series, which was inaugurated by John Szarkowski in 1985 and has been offered nearly every year since. With works by 19 artists (including one collective) from 14 countries, the latest show seems like the most extensive. That “Ocean of Images” wasn’t meant to be the kind of exhibition that would have pleased Szarkowski—a curator whose name is indelibly associated with the emergence of such figures as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and William Eggleston—is obvious from the get-go. The first work on view, also highlighted in the show’s publicity, is by the New York–based group Dis: a video installation featuring the Austrian pop singer and drag queen Conchita Wurst, the winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Szarkowski would not have been averse to images blurring the gender line—he showed Arbus’s photos of transvestites—or even to MoMA’s stepping off the pedestal of high culture to endorse the low-brow celebrity of the Eurovision Song Contest; with his embrace of the “snapshot aesthetic,” Szarkowski had already crossed the high/low divide. But to give pride of place in a new photography show to a video by artists who don’t think of themselves as photographers, but as makers of “cultural interventions…manifest across a range of media and platforms”—this would have given him pause.